Since the late 1990s, the novelist Gina Apostol has been writing highly political and highly entertaining metafiction about the legacies of colonialism and dictatorship in the Philippines. I came to her work through her fourth novel, Insurrecto (2018), a breakout hit in which translation, so often treated like the sad stepchild of the literary world, takes center stage. Insurrecto is a riot of linguistic play and punning, as is Apostol’s debut, Bibliolepsy, which won the Philippine National Book Award upon its publication and is now being re-released in the United States. Although written more than twenty years apart, the two novels share a sense of palpable delight in language—and a palpable desire to break its bounds. Bibliolepsy is a bildungsroman whose protagonist, Primi, cares exclusively about books. She knows she is in a novel; she knows, too, that her story is political. Everyone around her resists Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship and pushes her to do the same. Even in the midst of the 1986 People Power Revolution, Primi is willing to stop reading only to pursue writers: her mission is to have sex with as many as possible. It is a portrait of a woman reckoning, very slowly, with life inside a political story—because Primi knows perfectly well that she’s in a story. All Apostol’s characters do.
THE BELIEVER: How would you describe what exactly art does in the world?
GINA APOSTOL: We never see ourselves as others see us. Even in the mirror, we see ourselves backward. We understand ourselves through others. Books let us engage with ourselves through another person, but at the same time they remind us that we are constructing ourselves in real life, just as an author constructs a book. In life, we can’t necessarily see that construction. In narratives, we can. That’s why meta-narratives are so interesting to me: they make explicit that reality, including the self, is constructed. Meta-narratives are authors’ ways of saying, Yes, this is all a construction. I’m telling you what’s happening. I made this. The more we’re aware of being constructed, the easier it is not to be taken over by other people’s power moves.
THE BELIEVER: The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata and Insurrecto both feature translation and the linguistic play associated with it. Does writing about translation emerge from your love of language and wordplay?
GINA APOSTOL: As a Filipino, you grow up in translation. I speak Waray, but my classes were all taught in English, so my primal language became a hidden thing. Also, because I grew up translating all the time, I have empathy for acts of translation and mistranslation. Filipinos who live in the power world—the world of English—have to live constantly with the knowledge of possible misunderstandings, either of themselves or of others. I have a lot of empathy for those dealing with the power system begotten by the necessity of translation in our world. At the same time, I have no anxiety about using the power of English. I’ve always written in English. I have never written in my language.
Colonization created this issue of language and translation in the Philippines—not me. I have a political problem with colonization but no shame about using English. I do not see it as a problem—or not a personal one. Our multiple languages are our form of existence, deep and mired in Filipino reality. All the translators, the wordplay in my novels, call attention to that fact.
I should say that life in translation is not only a Filipino reality. Even if your only language is English, the problems of accuracy and misunderstanding are part of your existence. All of us are translating nonstop. It’s just more obvious in the Philippines and countries like the Philippines.
THE BELIEVER: At one point in Bibliolepsy, Primi persuades herself that the writer—in her words—“fulfills and [makes] whole” the reader’s desires, which is at odds with this concept of the open text. Did you ever share her hope that a novel could make somebody feel whole?
GINA APOSTOL: I never believed a novel could make anyone whole. I think the fall of capitalism will make us whole. For me, the political world—our engagement with the political world—is part of how we can make ourselves whole.
Of course, I believe in art too. Art is necessary for the individual. We need to engage in the imagination, and we need to value art. Artistic integrity is good for the world, and we need to protect it. Still, art won’t make the world whole, you know? We shouldn’t honor art but allow poverty.
I should also say that the concept of artistic integrity, or of what a piece of art needs, is not always the biggest priority. Take Hannah Black telling Dana Schutz that her painting of Emmett Till was harmful. If I had caused harm in that way, I would have burned the piece. Having artistic integrity matters less than the relational issue there. Even in terms of smaller offenses—I often write directly about people I know, but if what I write could hurt somebody, I never publish it. I still write it, but the relationship matters more than the work of art.
THE BELIEVER: It seems to me that the ethics of art and the ethics of life are a Venn diagram, not a perfect circle, and that there is currently a cultural debate over how much the diagram’s circles should overlap. You have a lot of overlap in your personal diagram, it sounds like.
GINA APOSTOL: I deal with these issues in terms of kindness. Even if these questions are political and ideological ones, I prefer to consider them in terms of human relationships. My desire not to deeply offend others means more to me than my art. In writing, I do my best to be as true as possible—and to me, if you really, really work with the truth, your art can only offend the person in power, which is what we want. We want to be offensive to the person in power and not to be offensive to the person who is not.
THE BELIEVER: How do you react to the American uneasiness with or stigma against explicitly political novels? And what contemporary political writers do you like?
GINA APOSTOL: There’s a whole bourgeois world of American art that I cannot take—and, of course, plenty of political art I don’t like that much. To me, the works of fiction that people are still reading are those that have engaged with political reality. Even Lolita engaged, despite what Humbert Humbert thinks. Compare Lolita to John Updike, who was kind of retrograde. He always made fun of Rabbit Angstrom’s activist wife. I never got that. The casual misogyny. I do love Updike’s sentences, though. I read all the Rabbit books. But I don’t know anyone now who’s reading Updike.
As to contemporary political fiction, John Keene’s Counternarratives is amazing. No one talks about John Keene, but he’s the best American short-story writer right now. Also, I really love Elena Ferrante. Ferrante is completely connecting women’s consciousness to the political world. Her character Lila is a real organic intellectual, the kind who never gets realized in most novels. In any other book, she’d be the sidekick, but Ferrante makes her the main character. I also love Eugene Lim and Paul Beatty—oh, and Ishmael Reed! I love his short, crazy early books. I love crazy books. I often struggle to read so-called realism, which can be contrived and unreal. Those worlds never convince me. Ishmael Reed’s novels are convincing to me—even the one with cowboys on Mars!—because Reed has a Marxist thesis about political history. He includes poor people, people across the world. He has this taut economic and historical thesis, and because his political ideas are so beautifully accurate, he can then attain freedom as an artist.